ABSTRACT

Powered flight has evolved several times in vertebrates and constrains morphology and physiology in ways that likely have shaped how organisms cope with infections. Some of these constraints probably have impacts on aspects of immunology, such that larger fliers might prioritize risk reduction and safety. Addressing how the evolution of flight may have driven relationships between body size and immunity could be particularly informative for understanding the propensity of some taxa to harbor many virulent and sometimes zoonotic pathogens without showing clinical disease. Here, we used a comparative framework to quantify scaling relationships between body mass and the proportions of two types of white blood cells – lymphocytes and granulocytes (neutrophils/heterophils) – across 63 bat species, 400 bird species and 251 non-volant mammal species. By using phylogenetically informed statistical models on field-collected data from wild Neotropical bats and from captive bats, non-volant mammals and birds, we show that lymphocyte and neutrophil proportions do not vary systematically with body mass among bats. In contrast, larger birds and non-volant mammals have disproportionately higher granulocyte proportions than expected for their body size. Our inability to distinguish bat lymphocyte scaling from birds and bat granulocyte scaling from all other taxa suggests there may be other ecological explanations (i.e. not flight related) for the cell proportion scaling patterns. Future comparative studies of wild bats, birds and non-volant mammals of similar body mass should aim to further differentiate evolutionary effects and other aspects of life history on immune defense and its role in the tolerance of (zoonotic) infections.

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